Re:Zero is quite possibly the most deceptive, gruelling anime I’ve ever watched. At its most basic, it focuses on a regular dude called Natsuki Subaru, who gets transported from his modern world to a parallel fantasy universe. Sound familiar? I figured it would be a pleasant distraction; a mediocre, if moderately enjoyable, ride.
For the first few episodes, that’s exactly what it was, and I stuck with it due to the few interesting plot threads presented. The story centres around the Cult of the Witch, Satella, and her legion of Sin Archbishops, who will stop at nothing to plunge the Kingdom of Lugnica into peril. Subaru’s newfound ability, Return by Death grants him the power to, upon dying, start over from an undefined checkpoint’ in the past, using the knowledge of what led to his death to change things. Or not, as is often the case. Subaru is reckless, full of bravado and constantly hard for the half-elf princess, Emilia, often screwing up while making only minute progress. To make matters worse, the use of this ability gives him the scent of the witch, sowing suspicion upon his would-be allies.
Speaking of allies, characters were varied and interestingly designed, while the animation was fluid, fights flowed smoothly and looked spectacular. Initially, the characters were likeable, if a little generic. You’ve got the half-elf princess love interest, twin maids, an antsy loli librarian and the shady owner of a mansion in which Subaru finds himself employed (and who reminds me of Kefka from Final Fantasy VI). Subaru’s unwavering devotion for Emilia borders on obsession, and his continued efforts to fit in with the mansion family lead to at least one death per episode. I ended up expecting every episode to just be ‘death of the week’, with some small trickle of plot movement.
Around halfway through, things changed, and the series showed it could do far more than simply tread tired ground. The show goes from being a run-of-the-mill action fantasy to a much more grounded, psychological-thriller. I’ve never related to a character as much as I did Subaru. Rather than representing the infallible, idealistic hero who always saves the day, his personal journey answers the kind of question that anime like Sword Art Online never dare to ask: what are the mental implications of respawning over and over again, not knowing how to change things for the better? There are no cop-outs here; when something goes wrong, there’s never a guarantee that the checkpoint will be one that’s beneficial. When things started going well was, strangely enough, where my interest dulled slightly, however, I couldn’t help but cheer when the investment in the strong character development paid off.
The music was fitting, if mostly forgettable, however, the opening and ending themes are catchy and satisfyingly tease the true nature of the anime. Kudos to studio White Fox for skipping these sequences more often than not, allowing more time for actual content. Voice acting was exceptional, particularly Yuusuke Kobayashi as Subaru and Yoshitsugu Matsuoka as insane Sin Archbishop, Petelgeuse.
I find it incredibly hard to fault Re:Zero. It’s an anime that I could easily recommend to anyone as a gateway to the medium. It’s got an opening half that sets the scene well, building up conflict in the background, before striking a perfect balance between character building and action to drive its narrative home. It feels odd to say “wait until around halfway to be blown away”, but instant gratification is not something you’ll find here. The emotional payoff that comes from seeing characters suffer time and time again, acting with frustrating realism, is far greater than that earned through a multitude of set pieces. I wish I could return to zero and experience it all again.